Sunday, March 27, 2005

If Terry Schiavo Were Billy Packer, There'd Be National Consensus: Pull the Plug

March Madness is totally cool. It's the last great truly populist national sporting event, in which we get to celebrate courageous underdog college basketball players from small towns and even smaller schools. Sure, the big schools usually end up in the Final Four, but March Madness is more about the journey than the destination, and it's a heckuva lot more fun to root for the Bucknells, the Vermonts and the UW-Milwaukees of the world than it is to stare in wonderment at the boring predictability of the strong finishes of Duke, Kentucky, UConn and all the rest of the perennial powers. Bracketology consumes us for a while, but only people using computer programs and an indefinite number of entries can actually produce winning predictions. After the bracket has been circular-filed, there are still the games, and that's what matters most.

Which is why it's such a drag to have to listen to Billy Packer do color commentary on CBS. Packer's been around forever. I grew up in University of Maryland country, and I have some reminiscence of him doing regional ACC coverage when I was young. But before we skewer him, here's the 411 on him:

Packer was born Billy Paczkowski. He grew up in Bethlehem, Pa. His father was men's basketball coach at Lehigh. Packer the younger was all-state in high school and an all-Atlantic Coast Conference guard at Wake Forest, where he graduated with a degree in economics. In 1965, he served as assistant coach at Wake Forest under Jack McCloskey. By the early 1970s, Packer was out of the game, had invested in a small radio station, and put himself on the air broadcasting high-school football. Later, a friend—there's always a friend, isn't there?—greased the wheels for Packer to get a shot as a fill-in college b-ball announcer. He then did his first ACC basketball game in 1972, and he continues to do just that on a regular basis. Packer broadcast his first NCAA tournament game in 1974. He even won an Emmy Award in 1993.

So Packer's an institution. He's also a consummate annoyance. He's often the absolute worst kind of color man. If a player drives the baseline, then pulls up and hits a short jumper, Packer will criticize the defending team and say, "You can't let him take that shot. Someone's got to come over and help." Of course, if someone DID come over and help, and the man with the ball dishes off to the other, now-undefended player, Packer will say, "There's a good lesson. You've got to stay on your man no matter what." One moment somebody will be dubbed "one of the finest three-point shooters in the game." Then, the moment he misses from outside, you can count on Packer to say, "He's got to show a lot more good sense when taking that shot. That was a bad shot." To Packer, a bad shot is one that doesn't go in the hole. A good shot is one that does. Fucking brilliant analysis.

Packer is one of those game analysts, not unlike football color guy Dan Dierdorf, who feels compelled to have a response to every little thing that happens on the court. To Packer, there's no effect that doesn't have an explainable cause; and no cause that doesn't have an apparent effect. If a team is playing absolutely kinetic defense and shutting down the opposition, then the moment the opposition gets a basket, there's a "breakdown." If a team reels off 12 consecutive points hitting three-pointers from long-distance, then the moment a guy goes inside for a layup and, say, is called for a charging foul, then the guy is not "sticking with what is working." In Packer's world, coaches have to be mind-readers and clairvoyants; all else is "bad coaching." If a player has a ball stolen from him, he's guilty of a "mental lapse." If a team is kicking ass, and Packer's praising every aspect of their game, but then loses at the end when somebody blows a free throw, Packer'll say, "See? You can't win these big games unless you can shoot free throws." If a team needs to put the other team on the foul line at the end of the game to get the ball back—but then the team hits those free throws— then Packer'll say, "You just can't foul this team. They're just too good at shooting free throws." On it goes.

Packer is just plain nonsensical. His mouth motors on, spewing crap and illogic that passes for "expert analysis." Yet he's been doing it for more than 30 years. And he won an Emmy. He's a walking example of that old saying, "If you can't dazzle 'em with brilliance, baffle 'em with bullshit." Way to go, Billy. Those words should be engraved on your Emmy.

Okay, now to the business at hand. The 2005 Final Four has been determined. After three out of the four Elite Eight games were decided in overtime, it''s down to Louisville playing Illinois, and North Carolina playing Michigan State. The much maligned Big Ten produces two Final Four teams, while the SEC and the Big 12 and the Pac-10 end up with nothing. Proving again how great this tournament is: It consistently defies the pundits and the people "in the know." I'd love to take a look at Billy Packer's bracket.

Louisville is an exciting team. But why did they have to go to overtime to beat West Virginia? The Illini also had to post a near-miraculous comeback to oust Arizona in overtime. This is a tough game to call, but I'm going with Illinois.

Michigan State was impressive in defeating Kentucky in overtime. They're a determined group, and they're well-coached by Tom Izzo. I guess they might have the heart to beat North Carolina, but I can't bet on that. Carolina looks like the closest thing to a juggernaut that we've got here. I say Carolina over Michigan State.

Then I see North Carolina over Illinois in the final game. After all this excitement, I guess it's kinda boring if the Tar Heels win it again. I can just hear Billy Packer: "North Carolina has one of the greatest basketball programs in the country. They proved it again here tonight."

Fucking brilliant, I tell ya. Give that man an Emmy.

  • YOCO :: College Basketball--Great chatter site about NCAA basketball, featuring tons of links to other sports
  • Thursday, March 24, 2005

    First in War, First in Peace, and Last in the National League East

    When I first took a look at the Washington Nationals' 40-man roster, I thought, "Yeah, this looks like an expansion team, all right." Then I thought, "Wait a minute--this ISN'T an expansion team! Holy Christ!" Yep, this is a long-established professional baseball club, which spent the past 35 years as the Montreal Expos. Last year, they finished 67-95, which is pretty bad, but still better than three other teams, believe it or not. So this is not the worst team in baseball. Not yet, anyway.

    A quick perusal of the talent would lead one to believe that this team HAS to be at least a little better than the 1961 Washington Senators expansion team, whose big names at their first spring training camp were Dale Long, Gene Woodling, Willie Tasby, Danny O'Connell and Dick Donovan. On the other hand, the new Nats still have the air of expansion, which means a lot of unproven guys and a handful of others who have had some legit major league success or appear on the brink of establishing themselves as serious players. This is a group that could actually overachieve or could just as easily come a-cropper very early on. If the guys with some decent history prove to be on the definite downside of their game, then the Nats end up relying on a bunch of fairly young and mostly untested ballplayers. On the official roster, only 9 players were born earlier than 1976, which makes this a pretty young team. What is completely unknown is whether that's going to be a good thing or a bad thing. For what it's worth, the Nationals certainly have the ethnic look of a modern-day major league baseball club, i.e., many, many Latins and one Asian guy thrown in for good measure.

    At any rate, this team gives Washingtonians...well, about the same kind of team they were used to rooting for 35 years ago and beyond.

    The Pitchers:

    It's a motley crew, to say the least. There are two name starters: Livan Hernandez and Esteban Loaiza. In 2003, Loaiza was 21-9 with the Chicago White Sox, with a 2.90 ERA. Last year, he was 10-7, with an ERA of 5.70. He nearly doubled his ERA--not a good sign. Still, he's a proven big-time winner, and maybe he's still got some gas in his tank. Ditto for Hernandez, who has 95 career victories and is only 30 years old. After that, it's pray for a hurricane. This team is loaded with re-treads, guys like Tony Armas, Jr., Joey Eischen (who somehow got to be 35 years old with only 9 career wins to his name), Tomo Ohka, Antonio Osuna, and a bunch of others who might have no business playing major league baseball. There are some young arms--4 of the rostered pitchers were born in the '80s--but there is no apparent buzz on any of 'em. Just for fun, we can look forward to Manager Frank Robinson rolling out Jon Rauch, a 6'11," 260-lb. country boy from Kentucky. Assuming the big guy makes the team at all.

    The Catchers:

    Brian Schneider is 28 years old. Last year he batted .257 with 12 HRs and 49 RBIs. Gary Bennett is 33 years old. He has a career batting average of .247 and a grand total of 14 lifetime HRs. I don't see Johnny Bench here. More like, "Grab some bench." Journeymen catchers are a staple of expansion (and bad) teams. The Nats need help here.

    The Infielders:

    The biggest name in this bunch is probably 3B Vinny Castilla. He hit 35 HRs last year with 131 RBIs for the Rockies. He has a career batting average of .280 and he has 303 lifetime homers. He's a legit power threat, though the thin Colorado air probably helped swell last year's totals. The Nats, however, are his fifth team since 2001, and his numbers previously with Atlanta and Houston were decent but not extraordinary. Plus, he turns 38 in July. And he's already hurt his knee in training camp. Don't be surprised if Vinny corners the market on mediocrity. A better bet to become a fan favorite is 2B Jose Vidro. In his prime at 30, Vidro has a career batting average of .304. He'll give you 15-20 HRs per year, and in 2002 he drove in 96 runs. Also bound for some glory is SS Cristian Guzman, picked up from the Minnesota Twins. Guzman has been a consistent performer the past few years. He should hit about .275, and score a lot of runs. He doesn't walk much, though, and his power isn't much to speak of. But he's only 27, is experienced, and should be a good everyday shortstop. Brad Wilkerson is your classic free-swinging first basemen, and he appears to be improving. He hit 32 HRs last year--a career high--though someone needs to ask the question why a guy with that many homers only drove in 67 runs. His batting average is mediocre (lifetime .259), and he struck out 152 times in 2004. To the good, he drew 106 walks. Assuming he's on the upswing, can cut down on the Ks, makes more contact and ups that average, Wilkerson could be a star. The rest of the infield consists of guys like former All-Star infielder Carlos Baerga (signed as a spring training invitee), ex-Yankee 1B Nick Johnson (still waiting for a chance to establish himself somewhere), journeyman Wil Cordero (who used to have talent as a hitter--career BA of .275 with 122 HRs), and the usual young unprovens.

    The Outfielders:

    RF Jose Guillen batted .294 in 2004, with 27 Hrs and 104 RBIs. After fits and starts in previous seasons with Tampa Bay, Arizona, Cincinnati and Oakland, he has finally emerged. He turns 29 in May, so he ought to be good to go for a few years. Alas, in a league (and in an era) where Albert Pujols, Carlos Beltran and others are putting up spectacular numbers, Guillen just looks like another very good ballplayer. Still, he's got game and he's the best the Nats have. In LF, the Nats are pinning their hopes on the further development of Terrmel Sledge, who hit 15 HRs with 62 RBIs last year in his rookie season. Sledge has exhibited trouble hitting lefties, and I guess you gotta wonder why he made his major league debut at the ripe old age of 27. Possibly the most exciting player on this team is Endy Chavez, who will be expected to command centerfield with speed and authority and also improve on his past two promising seasons offensively. Chavez hit .277 in 2004 and stole 32 bases. He needs to walk more, but he did cut down on his strikeouts from 2003, while running more often, and more efficiently, on the basepaths. Outfield back-ups and platoon possibilities include Ryan Church, J.J. Davis and Alex Escobar.


    Probably not very good. If the Nats win 70 games, they'll at least have improved on last year. They play in the National League East, which means a lot of games against Atlanta, Philadelphia and the improved New York Mets. On paper, if Castilla is healthy, the infield actually looks pretty solid. There's some pop in the outfield as well, and a possible emerging star out there in Chavez. But as it does everywhere else, it all comes down to pitching, and there are big question marks on the Nats staff. If Loaiza and Hernandez prove early that their best days are behind them, it'll be a very long year at RFK Stadium. Oh well--that's nothing that the locals aren't accustomed to. The fun'll be in hoping the Nats surprise. Just don't bet on it.

    Tuesday, March 08, 2005

    Spring Cleaning in Nashville

    So the Tennessee Titans are cleaning house. After the team's hugely disappointing 5-11 finish in 2004, General Manager Floyd Reese looked around, saw cobwebs in the corners and dust bunnies under the beds, and decided to get out the broom.

    But it's not like he chased away bad players. Within the past week, the Titans have lost to free agency wide receiver Derrick Mason, cornerback Samari Rolle, defensive lineman Kevin Carter and offensive lineman Fred Miller. All four have Pro Bowl credentials. All four probably have some very good years left. It was money (or the Titans' lack thereof) that supposedly made these moves necessary.

    Carter, a popular and durable player who won a Super Bowl ring with the St. Louis Rams after the 1999 season, was becoming a staunch citizen in Nashville social circles. He didn't want to go. But the Titans weren't going to offer him the kind of money he could make elsewhere, so he made a beeline for Miami, where the defense-minded Dolphins gladly cut him a fat check. So long, Kevin. You will be missed. Not only for your effort on the field, but also for your articulate manner and positive spirit. This one kinda sucks.

    As for Mason and Rolle, they both ended up with the Baltimore Ravens. There's some irony here, given that the Ravens were arch-enemies of the Titans for several years. But again, it was the money. The Titans are overextended at the bank. They have salary-cap issues. They're paying too much money for the talent they have (had) on their roster. They need to move their money around, use less of it on more players, and develop their younger hands. So be it.

    The Ravens have been desperate for a top-flight wide receiver for a long time. They almost had their hands on Terrell Owens a couple of seasons ago. They'd have loved to have cut a recent deal for Randy Moss, but they couldn't afford him. Mason comes a bit cheaper, but he fits the bill. He's very underrated, having toiled in the shadow of Owens and Moss and others for eight years now. He's not a prototypical modern-day wide receiver. At 5'10" he's more in the mode of the Washington Redskins' Smurfs from the 1980s. But Mason is tenacious and reliable and can be flat-out exciting. He's got quickness, wiry moves, and enough speed to make you think he's faster than he really is. He caught 96 passes last year, and it still didn't seem like the Titans got him the ball enough. Plus, Mason's got personality. Baltimore fans are lucky: Mason's a cool guy to root for.

    Rolle is a perfect fit for the Ravens: their defense has a reputation for being aggressive and punishing, and Rolle was recently hauled in by the Brentwood (Tenn.) police for hitting his wife. The missus managed to show up at the press conference, though, all smiles at the thought of Samari's new multimillion-dollar contract. It's true then: time heals all wounds. When he's healthy, Rolle is one of the finest cornerbacks in the league. He was injured a lot last year, but he has an excellent chance to return to prior form. He should kick some ass playing behind Ray Lewis.

    Miller leaves Tennessee for the Chicago Bears, and on this one the Titans were smart. Miller's a veteran, and, like Carter, he's been very durable. He's a very nice guy, too. He also has made a positive impact on the Nashville do-gooder circuit. But close watchers of the team have to be glad that Miller is gone. Yeah, Fred could block. And he always showed up on Sunday. But he was also the King of the False Start. Miller had an unerring knack for getting called for motion penalties, and it always seemed to happen just when the Titans' offense was making a significant push down the field. They'd mount a long drive, chew up significant yardage, get in place for something big and--WHAM-O!--good ol' Fred, nice guy and all, would be called for illegal motion, either ruining a productive play or setting the team back five or ten yards. With all his physical gifts, Miller is a drive-killer of the first order. Must be all in his head. He's also in his early 30s, so his best days have to be behind him. Why the Bears gave him a five-year contract is beyond comprehension. They're welcome to him.

    Where all this leaves the Titans, though, is something to ponder. They were 5-11 this past season, and now they've lost four guys who were a big part of 13-3 seasons just a few years ago. This isn't deadwood that's gone; these are pros with a history of winning consistently. The departures leave the Titans especially weakened at cornerback and wide receiver. It removes their one truly veteran presence on the defensive line. And Miller, for all his faults, still needs to be replaced. Even with a typically shrewd draft, it'll take a while to figure out who can plug these holes.

    The D-line has a ton of raw young talent on it. But will they achieve? And if yes, then when? The receiving corps just lost the closest thing they had to a megastar. Last year's other big performer, Drew Bennett, is making strides, but I dunno: Name me the last successful NFL team you know whose #1 wide receiver was a white man. (Maybe Lance Alworth with the Chargers, or Fred Biletnikoff with the Raiders, in the '60s. Or maybe Steve Largent with the Seahawks of the '70s and '80s.) The Titans' defensive secondary was a mess last year, with a bunch of no-names trying to fill in for injured starters like Rolle and Lance Schulters. So...will they be better with Rolle gone?

    So far, the Titans have made no moves through free-agency. They have a history of building solidly through the draft, and making their wisdom pay off for years. Now, the chickens have come home to roost. Last season was supposed to be a good one. The talent was there, but players dropped like flies onto the injured list. So a 5-11 team enters 2005 with a young, raw, promising but still-as-yet-unproven defensive line; a defensive secondary decimated by injuries and free agency; a linebacking corps that was also wracked by injury; one talented white wide receiver and a bunch of other wannabes of all colors; a so-so offensive line that needs help; a great young running back (Chris Brown), who nevertheless also sat a lot last year due to chronic turf toe; and, at quarterback, the magnificent Steve McNair, who also missed a good deal of the season due to injuries, and whose physical history and age make it a tossup whether he'll ever complete a full season again.

    Even a good draft can't solve so many problems at once. And so, for the first time since the Titans moved to Tennessee in 1997, 5-11 is looking pretty good.

    Sometimes a good house-cleaning can take a lot longer than it should.